IT'S TRUE I came to Leif Enger’s novel late, almost two decades after it was published, but it resonated with me in its prose, its simplicity, its relationships. Like Reuben who always struggled with asthma, I caught my breath as I read. Life came after a moment of suspense. Hope returned. This struggling motherless family in 1963 North Dakota shared a beautiful, imperfect life.
Through the young eyes of Reuben, however, life is different and his father, his tellings, his relationship with God throughout the story, are essential to the reality Reuben believes. His father Jeremiah Land is the everyday hero who loves well. Reuben witnessed and heard his father pray and speak to God in realness, and it tainted, yes tainted, everything the boy saw and experienced from the miracle of life when his lungs refused to breathe at birth to his father walking on water or to protecting a son, the miracle is there. It is a living, breathing thing.
And I still can’t entirely grasp how Enger did it. It had to have been something he lived to inhabit the story so. Perhaps it was the element of sacrifice, that permanent expression, that made love real.
We see it in each relationship—Reuben and his older brother Davy, Reuben and his sister Swede and the stories she creates, and especially Reuben with his father.
Through his physical suffering that long winter, Reuben wonders, “Shouldn’t that be the last thing you release: the hope that the Lord God, touched in His heart by your particular impasse among all others, will reach down and do that work none else can accomplish—straighten the twist, clear the oozing sore, open the lungs? Who knew better than I that such holy stuff occurs?” But the miracle didn’t happen in that moment of need. It waited for the greatest need.
By their nature, miracles are undefinable. If they were concrete things, solid words and such, then the word would lose its potency. Not just anything can be a miracle. Reuben’s life is real, not contrived, and life is indeed a struggle except for those miracle moments that breathe more life into us.
MY STUDENTS ARE CERTAIN that the word thesis applies only to nonfiction. That is after all the only way they have ever personally used it. In essays. In speeches. In formal rhetoric classes.
But the word itself has no such limitation. In ancient Greek, the word means to physically place a proposition statement, to place it with intention. In logic, further etymology explains it was recorded in the 1570s as a formulation in advance of a proposition to be proved and only later in the 1650s did it come to mean a fully written speech as a dissertation presented by a candidate for a university degree. (1)
Though the word itself can mean a sentence or a paper or a speech, I would like to speak of it as a seminal sentence, the one thought (or close to one) that is the seed, the pith, of a story or novel. It’s not something we the readers create. It’s a sentence the author wrote.
So how do we find that sentence?
Or I could better ask, how do we recognize it?
I offer some questions to help:
My best examples come from Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs through It, because there are many sentences that capture the novel. And that’s the fun of analysis. As readers who have experienced the story, we get to choose.
Do we go with the poetic, like the first sentence which holds true for the entire story? Maclean writes, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
But what of the last pages? After experiencing the grand Elkhorn Canyon and so many beautiful moments on the Big Blackfoot River, we read, “A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.” And Maclean’s final words ring with beauty—
Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Or could that pith of a sentence be a philosophy like the curiosity theory mentioned by Maclean? Does it apply to fishing and life? “It is the theory that fish, like men, will sometimes strike at things just to find out what they are and not because they look good to eat.”
Or could we choose the theme of help when Norman offers his brother help after posting bond to get him out of jail? A few pages later, ironically, Paul asks if Norman should “help” his brother-in-law, “But maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.” How true for the brothers themselves. Norman’s wife Jessie says, “Why is it that people who want help do better without it—at least, no worse.” But then his father defines it— “Help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. So it is...that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves.” He comments that perhaps it is just being willing to help that counts.
From the many angles of an angler, we see that a story can flow with many thesis sentences. But I would also add this caution. A story can't be interpreted in dozens of ways. It shouldn't be. It can't just mean what you want it to mean. We rely on the author's words because he does have intent. The living words of a story have a soul, and that is the sentence I look for.
1. Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary.
IN THE PAST MONTH, I'VE TWEAKED A LOT. I’ve tweaked curriculum, articles, even the brightness of my book cover and its font size. I've tweaked my website, but I’ve also tweaked my closet apparently. Maybe I even tweaked my foot when I stepped on a backyard mole hill.
When it was first recorded in Old English in the 1600s, tweaking used to mean pinching, as in tweaking or tugging someone’s nose. Then it meant plucking, like picking lint off of a shirt. I don’t think I’ve managed to pinch or pluck anything I’ve written, but I may have plucked a few things from my closet that I don’t wear.
Now that I consider it, I do pluck things from what I write. I have to so I can add other words. Tweaking means to make a fine adjustment.
Tweaking really is refining, and refining is all about process, not perfection. It requires time and reflection and a good deal of plain old thought. I don’t want to be the fool described in Ecclesiastes 10:14 who just multiplies his words. That just implies empty quantity. A good word encourages the heart and strengthens it (Proverbs 12:25). Those words are agreeable and bring pleasure and make you stand taller.
Perhaps one of the most valuable parts of the tweaking process is that God can reveal His wisdom to us if we wait and rest without trying to fill a page just to fill it. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom herself says, I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength. And that is my hope and prayer for the words that I write. Let tweaking be a refining.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
TEACHING MY STUDENTS how to improve their own writing is no easy task. I emphasize content and typically focus on one to two stylistic elements per assignment. At the beginning of the school year, I quickly noticed that my seniors were overfond of the verb “use” in most any casual or formal writing assignment. We quickly built a synonym base for the word on the whiteboard and discussed connotations. For several months, I had them search and highlight the word, allowing for a single use.
As I worked on my novel these past months, my editor had to repeatedly teach me how to balance my use of active and passive voice in both dialogue and narration. Repeatedly. It took a number of attempts for my brain to get it. And practice was very much a part of the process.
My point is that it often takes mini-lessons like these as we each take steps in our writing or even speaking. And that is when writing style guides can be such a help. But forget writing classics like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The concept of spelling out rules with writing examples was tackled well before the 20th century. Think of Aristotle’s Poetics in 4th century BC. Though he focuses on drama and epic, he does address the use of language and a playwright’s diction.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also consider a short but splendid stylebook of the first century, one that considers the written and the spoken word. More than our contemporary guides, Cassius Longinus explores the motive of the writer. Why is he writing? What is his end? But more importantly, can we attain sublimity of language? Are we capable of learning it?
A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no.”
In On the Sublime I especially enjoy how Longinus speaks of the artistic turn of phrase, the creator's craft, as he cites concrete examples from Homer, the Bible, Sappho, Herodotus, Aristarchus, and so on. The sublime is a simple term that implies so much. The "loftiness and excellence of language" remain the ideal in writing as opposed to fluff or bombast. And yes, Longinus, fully discredits those as false writing. I think today we would call that emotional or reactionary writing. Bombast is simply writing that goes too far. The writer recognizes the need to be original in his use of description and goes overboard. Longinus eventually calls it pathetic. It seems everyone wants to be original. Too true.
In Part XV, Longinus provides real examples from Homer, Sophocles, and others that we can imitate. Grand language and perfectly crafted imagery are praised most, but his third and fourth principles are the most practical. Combine figures of speech or rhetorical devices for the most effect. A “close and continuous series of metaphors” is distinctive. Use conjunctions intentionally. Arrange your words in a certain and best order.
There is so much more to his advice and criticism, but I especially appreciate Longinus’ analysis of a writer’s style. After we have picked at all the parts, how do we determine what the best writing is? His final pages explore this very question--
Is it not worthwhile to raise the whole question whether in poetry and prose we should prefer sublimity accompanied by some faults, or a style which never rising above moderate excellence never stumbles and never requires correction? ... these are questions proper to an inquiry on the Sublime, and urgently ask for settlement."
And Longinus finds it hard to do. At first, he says a reader can discern an innate harmony within an essay. The reader simply knows it is sublime writing. But then, Longinus provides several examples of what sublime language is not. In other words, good writing remains to this day something easy to recognize yet hard to define.
Read On the Sublime at Project Gutenberg.
MOST OF MY STUDENTS would like to do other things than read a few chapters of required reading of an evening. For any literature teacher, what’s worse is that they can easily find free poem, chapter, novel, and play summaries with great ease online. After all, summaries are so much shorter, aren’t they?
So one of my first tasks of the year is to appeal to their integrity with a lesson from the Psalms. Let’s start with this. If I read a summary of a chapter in the Bible, what do I lose? Consider Psalm 23. This version comes to us from Shmoop--
The Lord (God) acts as a shepherd to the speaker. He makes sure the speaker isn't lacking any necessities. The Lord takes the speaker to peaceful and relaxing places, like green fields and calm waters. He also tends to spiritual well-being, making sure that the speaker stays on the right path. ...This happy state of affairs will continue for the rest of the speaker's life, and beyond. He doesn't ever plan to leave the protection of his host and shepherd.
It is a summary, but where’s the richness? Where is the personal sense of me being the sheep? Adonai is my shepherd. He’s not a neutral speaker unless David somehow knew of political correctness. What happened to vivid verbs like leads, guides, refreshes, comforts?
With David, I feel the certainty of his prayer. Adonai prepares a feast before me publicly in the presence of my enemies. How is that a "happy state of affairs"? Does the summary even capture the essence, the flavor, the mood of David’s perspective? I am anointed by God, and his love and goodness practically chase me. I know like David that I can abide with God, dwell with Him. Not leaving his protection sounds so shallow.
This type of example is simple and clear. It's more than a matter of wording. It's as if the summary reduces not just the number of words but the intention and truth behind them. The experience of reading the word of God simply cannot be redacted or it's no longer reading the word. In the same way, the experience of reading literature is just that—an experience. Shortcuts cheat us.
The wealth of reading remains with us just like living moments do. Reading allows us to walk through, to live beside, to express, to imagine within the lives of others.
IN BOOK I OF HIS CONFESSIONS, Augustine writes that for all the literature he read, for all the glory and passion and tears shed as his teachers required him to read about Aeneas and Odysseus, he never thought to apply what he read of the “empty romances” to himself--
I was obliged to memorize the wanderings of a hero named Aeneas, while in the meantime I failed to remember my own erratic ways. I learned to lament the death of Dido, who killed herself for love, while all the time, in the midst of these things, I was dying, separated from you my God and my Life, and I shed no tears for my plight.”
I realize that in his youth Augustine is lamenting his separation from God, even his ignorance of Him. Yet I wonder to myself how he skipped the step of application, whether spiritually or otherwise. He obviously experienced the pathos of the stories as led by his teachers. But story is more than emotion. Would he not wonder if he would do as Aeneas did, for he does admit to tears by the end? Did he not learn about himself by reading The Aeneid? Oh, I wish I could ask him.
This is the question for me. Story is experience. We want to connect to characters, to empathize with them, to cheer, to rage, to grieve, to love because our life experiences are stories.
But if we fail to learn about ourselves from literature or history,
Augustine simplistically concludes that stories are “empty fantasies dreamed up by the poets.” Though they are “enchanting,” they are “futile.” He feels there are more valuable studies and would rather jettison them entirely.
I don’t know what Augustine’s teachers modeled, but I do know that as a teacher, I want to model application. Yes, I want my students to understand a story. But that is the simplest step, the first shallow one leading into the water at ankle depth. I want to equip them with tools and methods and context to analyze a piece further in knee or waist-deep water. And most importantly, I hope to model application to the heart. If I have not asked, “What does this show in our humanness?” Or “How can God use this story regardless of the author’s intent?” then I will have drawn up short.
IT WAS A CLASSIC when it was first published in 1949, but it remains a classic because it is one-of-a-kind. Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London is absolutely the best biography because of her approach.
Chute essentially crafted the story of Shakespeare’s life from a paper trail, from wherever she could find town records, lease arrangements, tax papers, theatre programs, personal letters, and really anything in print. She creates a holistic picture of the time period in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London while effectively showing the complexity of the London stage. Chute writes about how Shakespeare’s arrival in London was perfectly timed as the theatres themselves were just blossoming:
William Shakespeare brought great gifts to London, but the city was waiting with gifts of its own to offer him. The root of his genius was his own but it was London that supplied him with favoring weather."
This is no encyclopedic list of chronologies but the real lives of Shakespeare, James Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and others who made up the Chamberlain’s Men. As readers, we learn of Shakespeare’s family, the myriad skills of successful actors, the competitive nature of playwrights and theatre companies, and the dictates and pleasures of theatre-lover Queen Elizabeth and her Master of Revels.
In fact, one of my favorite parts is that Shakespeare apparently was a man of integrity:
...he was a relaxed and happy man, almost incapable of taking offense. He did not participate in any of the literary feuds of the period, which...were particularly numerous in the Elizabethan age, with its delighted talent for invective.”
He worked almost twenty years in London without friction or any major offense because he had a “natural good temper and instinctive courtesy.”
Perhaps the greatest praise I could give is that Chute is a delight to read. Yes, the sheer number of dates, names, and details could be overwhelming, yet the reader doesn't feel it. With a fluid narrative, Chute has produced a fascinating wealth of research in a most readable form.
NOTA BENE: Younger readers will also enjoy her Introduction to Shakespeare and Stories from Shakespeare.
*originally published October 25, 2017
Babe Jesus lay in Mary's lap,
The sun shone in his hair;
And this was how she saw, mayhap,
The crown already there.
For she sang: 'Sleep on, my little king;
Bad Herod dares not come;
Before thee sleeping, holy thing,
The wild winds would be dumb.'
'I kiss thy hands, I kiss thy feet,
My child, so long desired;
Thy hands will never be soiled, my sweet;
Thy feet will never be tired.'
'For thou art the king of men, my son;
Thy crown I see it plain!
And men shall worship thee, every one,
And cry, Glory! Amen!'
Babe Jesus he opened his eyes wide-
At Mary looked her lord.
Mother Mary stinted her song and sighed;
Babe Jesus said never a word.
A night was near, a day was near,
Between a day and night
I heard sweet voices calling clear,
I heard a whirr of wing on wing,
But could not see the sight;
I long to see my birds that sing,
I long to see.
Below the stars, beyond the moon,
Between the night and day
I heard a rising falling tune
I long to see the pipes and strings
Whereon such minstrels play;
I long to see each face that sings,
I long to see.
Today or may be not today,
Tonight or not tonight,
All voices that command or pray
Shall kindle in my soul such fire
And in my eyes such light
That I shall see that heart's desire
I long to see.
IF WE CANNOT HEAR GOD, DO WE BLAME HIM? Orual declares, “The gods never send us this invitation to delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony. We are their bubbles; they blow us big before they prick us.” This same fatalism is echoed in James 1:13-15 (ESV): Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Not one of us is helped by blaming God. Orual’s domineering selfishness is key, and Ansit seems to be the only one to recognize it fully: “You’re full fed. Gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters.’” Orual is angered and repulsed by this, but she can see it is true. Whether her obsessive love for Psyche or her controlling love for Bardia, Orual’s idea of love is wholly tainted. It brings death to all.
And so, how can we like a character who has damaged so many, including herself? This is the distinctive point of Lewis’s tale. We don’t have to like Orual or agree with her or even hope for her, but we do need to see ourselves in her. If we read this myth as story only, then we have lost its moral lesson and the pending redemption.
At the end of her reign, Orual finally realizes the futility of hiding from herself, “I did and I did and I did, and what does it matter that I did?” She simply has no concept of what trust nor rest is. She has struggled with this from the beginning. Just as Psyche exemplifies complete, even perfect faith, Orual cannot trust. On her first visit to the mountain, Orual declares she almost came to a full belief. The almost is conscious doubt. She knows Psyche is certain, and she knows she, Orual, is not. It is a sickening feeling, and Orual is filled with both horror and grief at the gulf between them, immediately blaming the gods, instead of herself. She cannot see that she has in fact made a choice to doubt.
Moreover, when Orual returns to the mountain the second time determined to forcibly remove Psyche, she cannot see Psyche’s perspective nor can she truly see Psyche’s joy. Though Orual is certain she is right, she is blind. I John 2:8-11 says this is because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. Here, John reveals what Orual cannot know of herself yet—that she “hates” Psyche. This hatred incites her blindness, and by novel’s end, Orual herself confesses to Psyche that she has always been a “craver,” loving her only “selflessly.